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The irony of criminalising prostitution as a form of ‘modern slavery’

Prostitution was criminalised in the nineteenth century in order to ‘save’ women from ‘sexual slavery’. Ironically, this has only resulted in sex workers who are more vulnerable to abuse.

John Harris; Engraver of frontispiece/Wikimedia Commons.

Prostitution is currently being reconceived as a form of ‘modern slavery’ by certain feminist groups, religious organisations, and politicians. This conceptualisation rests on the belief that prostitution is inherently exploitative and harmful to women. As such, a woman cannot ‘choose’ to sell sex, nor can she experience it as a viable alternative to other forms of exploited or poorly paid labour. This vision of all prostitution as ‘sex slavery’ has led to its inclusion in proposed and existing legislation that ostensibly targets ‘modern slavery’. For example, earlier versions of the UK’s ‘modern slavery bill’, which was passed earlier this year, included a clause that criminalised the purchase of sex (this clause was not included in the final legislation). If prostitutes are all slaves, then the men who bought sex are positioned in this model of criminalisation as the slave holders.

While proposals to criminalise the purchase of sex have never before been so seriously entertained, the conceptualisation of prostitution as fundamentally harmful and immoral has a long history. By the mid-nineteenth century, and spurred on by mounting fear of venereal diseases, most European countries had introduced controls on prostitution within their own countries and throughout their empires. These systems, which usually required the regular medical inspection of women labelled as prostitutes and often stipulated where and how brothels were run, were seen as ways to protect the health of the military and civilian populations while also controlling and surveilling ‘unrespectable’ women.

Britain’s attempt at regulation—the Contagious Diseases Acts—was met with almost immediate protest from campaigners within the women’s movement and radical liberalism. It was a two pronged attack. On the one hand, these campaigners argued, the acts ‘licensed vice’ and legitimated and encouraged the sexual enslavement of women to men. On the other hand, the acts were unconstitutional: by registering women and labelling them as prostitutes, they trampled upon these women’s personal rights. These campaigners called themselves ‘abolitionists’, solidifying what they believed was the strong connection between the campaign against chattel slavery and their own campaign against regulated prostitution.

Inherent immorality

The British contagious diseases acts, in no small part due to these ‘abolitionist’ campaigns, were repealed in 1885. Following this success, the two-pronged attack began to grow into two different ways of conceiving the ‘problem’ of prostitution and its solutions. This division remains with us today, despite the attempt of politicians and some feminists to portray the campaign against prostitution as a united moral front.

For those who found meaning in the argument that prostitution was inherently immoral, harmful, and analogous to slavery, the next step after repealing the legislation was to crack down on other aspects of prostitution. Campaigners, who were often in positions of power in local councils, created new laws to shut down brothels, turning women out into the street when they refused offers of ‘rescue’. They placed increasing pressure upon the police to rid the streets of solicitation. They even tabled bills that promoted the full criminalisation of the buying and the selling of sex.

The irony of these drives, born out of the belief that prostitution was a form of slavery that needed to be ‘abolished’ as chattel slavery had been before it, was that their methods began to look very similar to the regulated systems that they had so despised. In order to shut down brothels, local councils had first to prove that ‘common prostitutes’ used them. To do this they implemented systems of surveillance not unlike those used by the ‘morals police’ in places where brothels were registered, rather than criminalised. They did not seek evidence that the brothel in question was exploitative: that it existed was evidence enough of its exploitation.

In order to clear the streets of women soliciting sex, police turned to anti-solicitation laws. These required law enforcement to prove that a woman on the street was a ‘common prostitute’ and was annoying people around her. This meant that police kept extensive registers of women who they believed were prostitutes, just as the police in regulated systems did. A police officer’s record of a woman’s presence in the street was sufficient to label her as a prostitute, and her first conviction secured this identity forever. Moreover, because police rarely needed to present actual evidence of soliciting, annoyance, or disturbing the peace, women who had been labelled as prostitutes were left vulnerable to arrest any time they were in public. This was exactly the same as regulated systems, which prohibited ‘prostitutes’ from being in public during certain times. The discourse of prostitution-as-slavery allowed for blanket legislation and policies that returned to the question of moral absolutes—good vs. bad women—and the mechanisms through which the state and society could tell them apart.

Unconstitutional criminalisation

For those who had found the most meaning in the emphasis on women’s constitutional rights, these developments were horrifying. While they certainly did not celebrate the existence of prostitution, they fervently opposed the criminalisation of commercial sex which, they felt, could only be achieved through ‘grave injustice’ and a disturbing increase of arbitrary police power. They opposed all laws that made prostitution an exception. Why was there a specific law against street solicitation, when a general law against disturbing the peace would be more fair? Why were prostitutes singled out as women to be denied entry to countries or deported? Why were people proposing laws that criminalised the purchase of sex when states were not using the arsenal of existing laws against sexual assault to protect all women and children from abuse? This second camp still called themselves abolitionists, but they sought to abolish what they called ‘laws of exception’. They understood that abolishing prostitution itself would not be achieved through criminal law, but rather through an improved standard of living and social and economic equality for women worldwide.

The other ironic outcome of the criminalisation drives that emerged from the prostitution-as-slavery discourses of the late nineteenth century is only truly visible with historical hindsight. Women were kicked out of brothels and often rendered homeless. Women were forced into a revolving door of the criminal justice system when they solicited on the street. No programmes were put in place other than paltry and unrealistic forms of ‘rescue’ and ‘rehabilitation’ (much like, in fact, the programmes for ‘freed’ slaves of the Caribbean and, later, the United States). No attempt was made to overturn underlying systems of labour exploitation that, in the name of securing cheap consumer goods, left many women unable to earn a decent wage at low-skilled work. Indeed, many early socialists also understood prostitution as a form of slavery, but the slave holders were not the clients who bought sex but rather the factory owners and middle-class consumers who ensured that these exploitative systems perpetuated.

For many women selling sex, the answer to criminalisation and few alternative labour options was to turn to third parties to help them avoid the law, and to conduct business in more furtive ways. The second half of the twentieth century, which witnessed a rise in third-party control, abuse, and client violence is, with deep irony, a direct product of that noble campaign to end the ‘slavery’ of prostitution.

About the author

Julia Laite is a lecturer in modern British and gender history at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Prostitution in London, 1885-1960 and is currently working on a book about trafficking in the early twentieth century'.

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